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Monday, November 11, 2019

Steven Pinker: Marriage is Magic

I am posting this edited version of a post from my personal blog from February 2018 because the discussion between Pinker and Krugman got me thinking about it.

I will explain more in a near-future  blog post, in which I will be referring back to this post.





Conservatives believe that marriage is the cure for poverty. As Jonathan Chait writes in The Atlantic How Marriage Became the Republican Answer to Inequality:
...a Wall Street Journal op-ed by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, headlined, “How to Fight Income Inequality: Get Married,” sanctifying the role of marriage as official Republican party-line response to poverty and inequality... 
...One can debate the degree to which the absence of marriage results from a lack of economic opportunities versus the degree to which it causes them. Liberals emphasize one interpretation, conservatives the other. 
But even if we assume the correlation runs entirely in the direction asserted by conservatives, there is no way to read the data and conclude that marriage amounts to the entire economic gap, or anywhere close. To take one example, an adult mother is more than twice as likely to be poor if she grew up poor but with two parents than if she grew up non-poor with a single parent:



It seems that growing up in poverty is more likely the cause of impoverished motherhood than growing up with a single mother.

But as we will see, Steven Pinker, like conservatives, isn't too concerned about demonstrating actual cause and effect when it comes to marriage.

In the chapter "The Civilizing Process" where Pinker started out with an infrastructural approach to social changes, he switches back to sociobiology/evolutionary psychology.

He writes:
...as Daly and Wilson have noted, “any creature that is recognizably on track toward complete reproductive failure must somehow expend effort, often at risk of death, to try to improve its present life trajectory.”  The ecosystem that selects for the “dad” setting is one with an equal number of men and women and monogamous matchups between them. In those circumstances, violent competition offers the men no reproductive advantages, but it does threaten them with a big disadvantage: a man cannot support his children if he is dead... 
...The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology. A famous study that tracked a thousand low-income Boston teenagers for forty-five years discovered that two factors predicted whether a delinquent would go on to avoid a life of crime: getting a stable job, and marrying a woman he cared about and supporting her and her children. The effect of marriage was substantial: three-quarters of the bachelors, but only a third of the husbands, went on to commit more crimes. This difference alone cannot tell us whether marriage keeps men away from crime or career criminals are less likely to get married, but the sociologists Robert Sampson, John Laub, and Christopher Wimer have shown that marriage really does seem to be a pacifying cause. 
Those last two sentences are exactly what Marvin Harris was talking about, quoted in the last post on this subject: "Eclecticism consists of the refusal to state what generally determines what."

First Pinker says we cannot tell whether marriage keeps men away from crime or if career criminals are less likely to get married. And then says marriage seems to be the cause.

As Louis Menand in his review said: "Having it both ways is an irritating feature of "The Blank Slate."

And there he is doing it in "Better Angels." You can't say we don't know if marriage is the cause or effect and then in the very same sentence say it seems to be the cause. If you have decided that something is the cause, you argue for it. What kind of rhetorical bullshit is that, to say "we don't know" and then declare we do know in the same sentence?

But the notion that marriage civilizes men would appear to be wrong to anybody who gives it two seconds of reflection, and especially in view of Pinker's argument that violence has been declining since the rise of the nation-state and capitalism.

Throughout most of recorded human history women have been compelled by custom and economics to get married. The prohibitions, especially for women, against sex outside of marriage combined with limited economic options made marriage unavoidable for most women. So most people got married throughout most of human history. It doesn't appear to have had any impact whatsoever on how men have behaved.

And in fact, as most sentient adults know, marriage rates declined in the latter half of the twentieth century and are at the lowest rate, right now, in the history of the United States.

Demonstrating, contrary to Pinker's claim, there is no causal connection between marriage and violence.

In Pinker's "History of Violence Master Class" at Edge in 2011 he offers these charts:





And FactCheck.org provides this chart based on FBI data:


Pinker doesn't provide any marriage statistics for this time period - they would show immediately that marriage was declining at the same time violence was. It's easy enough to find such charts, like this CDC-sourced chart via the Washington Post.


I edited  and combined the murder and marriage charts to match up the time-spans and it becomes even clearer.


This doesn't prove that marriage was the cause of the murder rate, of course, but it damn sure proves marriage was not the cause of the decrease in violence.

Pinker doesn't seem to have noticed any of this. He writes:
The women's rights movement has seen an 80 percent reduction in rape since the early '70s when it was put on the agenda as a feminist issue. There has also been a two-thirds decline in domestic violence, spousal abuse, or wife beating, and a 50 percent decline in husband beating. In the most extreme form of domestic violence, namely uxoricide and matricide*, there's been a decline both in the number of wives that are murdered by their husband's and the number of husbands that have been murdered by their wives. In fact, the decrease is much more dramatic for husbands. Feminism has been very good to men, who are now much more likely to survive a marriage without getting murdered by their wives.
Like alt-right Claire Lehmann, Steven Pinker seems to believe in the mighty power of feminist rhetoric to make vast changes in socioeconomic conditions, so he doesn't bother to look at the connection between marriage rates and violence.

As a feminist I'd love to believe that what I say is so influential, but the actual change in domestic violence was thanks to the no-fault divorce laws. The first was enacted in 1969, signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Feminist rhetoric was still a subcultural phenomenon, and it's unlikely more than a small percentage of women called themselves feminists in 1969.

As with women working outside of the home, feminism was the result of no-fault (aka "unilateral") divorce, not the cause.

It was the change in divorce laws that saved women's lives - not only from their husbands but from themselves, as indicated in this chart from the paper ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Effects of Divorce Laws on Suicide and Intimate Homicide':



But Steven Pinker, in the eclectic tradition, doesn't seem concerned with whether something is a cause or an effect, which makes his theories useless.

*it says "matricide" on the Edge web site but I assume Pinker meant "mariticide."